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Not as guilty as he looks? The Met chief, Labour and ID cards

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Analysis Does Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair vote Labour? After his comments in support of ID cards last weekend quite a few people seem to think so, and he has deservedly come under fire for leaping into the political arena by supporting Labour's anti-terror programme in the midst of an election campaign.

Nor do stories about Tony Blair driving around in police cars with 'vote Labour' stickers help.* But there was, we think, more to what Sir Ian had to say than meets the eye. He was wrong, certainly, but his wrongness is in some senses understandable.


First of all, consider the likelihood that his comments were foolish, not calculating. The previous week had seen the conclusion of a major terrorism trial which - despite PR spin to the contrary - had exposed numerous failings in the security forces in general, and a couple in the Metropolitan Police in particular.

When Sir Ian was interviewed on the Sunday it was therefore to be expected that he'd be asked about what went wrong, and extremely likely that he would be asked about ID cards. The British police are, ahem, 'above politics', but senior police officers need a certain political deftness in order to keep up appearances. It is very much in the interests of the Metropolitan Police to seem to be above the political fray, and it is important (at least from the Met's point of view) that the Top Cop be sufficiently agile to avoid messing this up.


Sir Ian should therefore have seen this one coming a mile off and mouthed a few platitudes, but he didn't, and instead, the growing perception of the Met as the military wing of New Labour's Home Office was given a further heave (Charles Clarke heaved some more with this deplorable press release on Monday).

There are obvious problems with Sir Ian's recommendation of ID cards; he was wrong in suggesting them as a fix for the particular problem he was talking about, Kamel Bourgass' multiple IDs, and equally wrong in thinking they'd help massively with most of the other problems the Met faced in dealing with the case. That, however, is not to say that Sir Ian's problems don't exist.

Prior to his final arrest and conviction, Bourgass had been refused asylum and had absconded. The Met had arrested and prosecuted him for shoplifting during this period, but had let him go. It's been suggested that the police did not know Bourgass was a failed asylum seeker at this juncture, but that's not entirely true. When arrested Bourgass told police he was an illegal migrant but refused to give an address. The arresting officers contacted the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, which declined to send out anyone to interview him, but told police to issue a form which would allow the court to consider detention or deportation. In court, Bourgass was fined, but released without further contact with IND.

The actual problem here, you'll notice, is more the process than the data. Bourgass used at least four identities, and certainly didn't give the police the name that was on IND's records, but as he'd told police he was an illegal migrant IND should perhaps have been more interested in him than it was. IND's lack of interest will have provided some encouragement to the police not to pursue the matter, on the understandable grounds that they had better things to do than sort out problems for the immigration service. IND, on the other hand, will have been reluctant to go chasing out to Romford to check out some shoplifter they'd never heard of.

Sir Ian Blair clearly sees ID cards as a magic bullet that would fix problems of this sort. Bourgass (or whatever name he used for IND) would have an ID card, police would check his fingerprints against the database when they arrested him, and they would then have both the name he registered under and the fact that he was wanted by IND. It's worth noting here that a process of this sort, working to specification, would have the effect of 'automating out' some of the human failings that led to Bourgass' release in Romford. The notion of using automation to design the errors and omissions of humans out of the system underpins several of the IT projects the Government is currently engaged in, and this is worth bearing in mind whenever you're examining one.

Back in Romford, however, the ID card magic bullet wouldn't have been particularly relevant. As Register readers at least are aware, these days all asylum seekers are issued with biometric ID cards, and prior to these being introduced, IND was using a database of asylum seekers' fingerprints. Bourgass actually applied for asylum before either system was in place, so it's possible that his fingerprints weren't on record, but IND certainly will have data on all the more recent asylum seekers who have been issued with an ID card, and all the online checking the police should need in these cases is the ability to check IND's database. If he thinks about it, therefore, rather than demanding ID cards Sir Ian might find it better to concentrate on getting this access, and on getting police national computer systems that actually work into service.

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